UK flood defences praised for saving lives and property on east coast
Huge storm and tidal surge pass without major destruction despite water rising above levels of 1953 great flood.
Britain’s flood defences and flood warnings that led to thousands of people leaving their homes in the face of record-breaking high tides along the east coast have saved lives and property, according to the Environment Agency and police.
Although two people died on Thursday in fierce storms, which disrupted large parts of the country, overnight flooding from coastal surges was not as bad as expected.
But Owen Paterson, the environment secretary, warned that the crisis was not over.
“Conditions like this only occur in some places every 500 years, so it’s good that over 800,000 properties were protected by our flood defences,” said Paterson after chairing a meeting of the government’s Cobra emergency committee at 8am on Friday to assess the situation.
“I would stress that this is not over. There will still be exceptionally high tides today and tomorrow, and I would urge everybody to pay very close attention to advice from the Environment Agency and also to follow instructions from the police, local government and emergency services.”
The Environment Agency said that in some places on the east coast sea levels were even higher during Thursday’s storm than they had been in 1953, when a similar flood claimed thousands of lives. But this time flood defences were much more effective, Jason Wakeford, an Environment Agency spokesman said.
“The worst effects were in darkness overnight, so it is too soon to assess the overall picture. But several thousand properties have been affected in the biggest coastal event of the last 60 years and the warnings we issued were in line with that risk,” said Wakeford.
In Hemsby, Norfolk, five homes slid into the sea, and three more were teetering on the edge. Robin Adams, the owner of one property, which he rented out, watched it fall over the cliff at 8.30pm on Thursday. “In half an hour the sea had lifted the bungalow up and folded it over and carried it away,” he said.
There were delays and cancellations for rail passengers and problems for motorists caused by debris and flooded roads. In some areas, such as Boston in Lincolnshire, schools were closed.
On Friday morning 27 severe flood warnings signalling danger to life remained in place across northern England, East Anglia, the Midlands and the south-east, along with 140 flood warnings and 63 alerts, including in north and south Wales, saying people should be prepared for flooding. Another 77 warnings and alerts have been removed over the past 24 hours. Most flood warnings in Scotland had been lifted on Friday.
Wakeford, the Environment Agency spokesman, said: “Some 800,000 properties have been protected by the defences put in place in the last six decades and we have issued 120,000 warnings to individual properties.
“It is quite clear from those numbers that events like this are hugely dangerous – the 1953 flood claimed thousands of lives so alerts and warnings are very important to prevent such a disaster happening again.”
The Thames Barrier faced the biggest tide since it opened in 1982 and will be closing again later on Friday after being shut overnight and reopened. Norway, Denmark and Germany were also hit by the storm. In Hamburg, Germany’s second-biggest city, the water rose about four metres (13ft) above average flood levels on Friday.
Northumbria police tweeted: “Early indications are that the tidal surges in our area this morning are less than what we saw yesterday.” Essex police said the county had escaped the worst of the weather.
Charlie Hall, deputy chief constable of Norfolk police, said: “This has been a serious incident which could have been far worse had it not been for the support and co-operation of the public and all the agencies working to keep people safe.
“In places, water levels were higher than those experienced in the flooding of 1953, when many people lost their lives.
“Thankfully that has not been the case on this occasion, a combination of improved defences in place and the concerted efforts of the community, the emergency services and the agencies that have worked to support the evacuation and keep people informed.
“The widespread evacuation was based on the high risk of severe flooding and was essential in ensuring the public’s safety. A night-time rescue operation would have placed both the public and emergency services at far greater risk.” Military personnel from Colchester Garrison helped emergency services during the night in Maldon in the county and most people evacuated from their homes had left rest centres, police said.
More than 10,000 homes on the coast were earmarked for evacuation on Thursday night after officials warned that lives could be at risk. In Boston, Lincolnshire, more than 250 people were taken to evacuation centres, and 200 were reported to be at a centre in Clacton-on-Sea in Essex.
Sandwich, in Kent, escaped lightly. About 20 homes closest to the Quay, where the flood defences are currently being improved in a £21m scheme, are thought to have suffered flooding when the defences were overtopped. About 178 properties were evacuated with some residents spending the night in a local leisure centre. Strand Street, one of the main streets in the centre of Sandwich, remains closed where Environment Agency staff set up a temporary barrier. On Thursday night residents queued for an allocation of 10 sandbags per house, some using borrowed shopping trolleys to carry them. Householders have been warned the emergency is not over, with a second high tide forecast for around 1pm.
In Scotland rail services were back to near normal after a virtual shutdown on Thursday but there were problems with services across eastern and south-eastern England and motorists were advised to stay clear of main routes such as the A47 and A12.